Poison 5

Raptor, Kio grumbled internally, is a name that is hard to get used to.

For around five hours now, the bone dragons had been circling around Nashido. The Benefactor–Raptor–had spoken to them several more times since his first speech had gone over so well. His tone had not lost its fire, but it had become more instructional, an inspired manager giving rapid dictation. The first time Kio snuck near enough to listen, he found that Raptor was speaking in a language he couldn’t parse: a series of clicks and moans punctuated by gestures, all of which the Neogah seemed to understand.

He was giving them directions. To what objective, Kio had no idea.

The events of five hours prior left Kio in a daze. He wandered the castle, half-in and half-out of a fugue, entering rooms and realizing he had no reason to be there. He mulched the same vegetable patch three times. He oiled an oxygen vine. In a high solarium, he caught sight of Medwick entering through the opposite door, and slammed his own shut hurriedly. However right the priest may have been about Karla, he was not ready to have a conversation with the man just now.

But that meant he had to keep ambling about Nashido, up and down stairs, sometimes using the pullies just for something to do. That meant he had to watch the dragons–Neogah–and feel a twinge of terror within him every time he saw one perched like a gull atop a tower or cruising in lazy circles around the darkening sky.

I have to tell Karla, he’d always think, reflexively. We have to protect each other.

When Raptor had sent word through Medwick that he wished to see Kio in a banquet room on the aft side, he was too relieved to be unnerved. He quickly found the spot. The door creaked several times like a giggling spirit as he pushed it open.

In a short time, Raptor had transformed the place. Kio knew this room only as a stuffy, cluttered sephulcre they only used for sleeping in when they were bored of the bedrooms. But somehow–some items would have to have been thrown out of the windows–Raptor had made it into a reception hall that commanded respect. The god sat on a high-backed chair behind a long table that rose up from an empty red carpet like a mountain soaringfrom a sea of blood. Through the window, dark clouds drifted, promising a cold wind.

Raptor had transformed himself, too. He had shed his grey woolen suit in favor of a black shirt and a dark red hooded cloak lined with fur. Under gunmetal-grey trousers, his boots were sturdy and practical, but his eyes gleamed with something more beneath his black hair.

He was a king in this space. A god. He’d have to be to not freeze to death in an outfit like that.

“Sit, Kio,” he said, smiling when the boy came in. He’d prepared another tall chair for Kio on the same side of the table. Kio sat, willing himself to stop trembling–it meant falling for the same trick the bone dragons had, and that was just embarrassing.

“I suppose you’re exceedingly confused,” Raptor told him when he had turned his chair to face Kio’s.

Kio cast around. “Confused…isn’t the right word. I understand what’s happening. I still have a few issues with why.”

“Why?” Raptor leaned back in his chair, tipping two legs off the floor. “That’s rather easy to explain. The Neogah have an insatiable lust for the Heartsphere, you see, and power sources like it–they can smell them miles away. It’s just rotten luck that so many of them converged at once. But fortunate in the end, of course, since we managed to win them over to our cause.”

“What cause?”

Raptor’s smile evaporated. He leaned close to Kio, starting the young man shaking all over again.

“I am sorry to have to involve you in this,” he said. “But then again, it is what I raised your family from the surface to do. If anyone is prepared for this fight, it’s you.”

“I thought you raised us to be ambassadors. To connect the sky to the surface.”

“Dear skies, no! Your ancestors never touched the surface after I lifted them. They took pleasure in playing go-between with the sky kingdoms, but that was always ancillary to their true duty. Each lord knew the burden, and carried my first order with him, to never enter the Heartsphere. Your father Sieno would have shared the truth with you when you came of age.”

“I already knew.” Kio squirmed, knowing he had broken this rule. There would be some sort of awful punishment, he was certain. Right here in this room if his usual luck held.

“You knew that I commanded the Rokhshan never to enter the sphere,” Raptor said. “But not the whole story. You see, the Heartsphere has massive power. Beyond even what the Neogah can sense.”

Here it comes. Kio tensed, waiting to be struck, or blasted into a thousand pieces with divine energy.

Instead, Raptor smiled. “I told you I’ve watched you, Kio. I know what you had to do to survive the Ash Cloud. I would never condemn you for making the same mistake I made.”

“You mean…” Kio felt blasted. He set about reminding himself he wasn’t.

“Yes. I entered the heartsphere as well, a thousand years ago. It is where I gained the burden I still carry.”

A thousand years. About the length of the history of House Rokhshan. The Benefactor had transformed into a bone dragon, then had uplifted surface people to become a noble house, in order to…

“Do you know what this place is?” Raptor asked.

“It’s, um…a dining hall. On Castle Nashido. Floating in the sky.”

“You believe it is the palace of your house? Or an embassy? Or a monument?”

“Yeah. All those things. Isn’t it?”

Raptor’s gaze had shifted to a point over Kio’s shoulder. Twisting around, Kio saw two of the Neogah, circling around and around a dark eastern horizon where long rays of light shone toward a dark nexus. Anti-crepuscular rays, they were called, created when the sun tilted through the clouds at just the right angle.

“It is a fortress,” Raptor said. “Built to defend against an endless siege.”

His eyes locked again on Kio’s. “The Ash Cloud will not stop. It will come again, and again–ever more frequent, more poisonous. Its objective is to reach the Heartsphere, and only Nashido stands in its way. Nashido…and the Rokhshan.”

Kio’s shaking, this time, had nothing to do with Raptor’s force of personality. “You mean the reason this castle exists–the reason my family exists–is all to stop the cloud from touching the Heartsphere?”

“And this is what I mean,” Raptor said, sounding prouder than ever, “When I say that you have carried on your family’s legacy more bravely than I could ever have expected of you. You magnificent Lord Rokhshan.”

“I…” It wasn’t right not to say it. “I wasn’t alone.”

Raptor darkened. “Karla did her part,” he admitted. “But she carries the lineage of the Harpooneers, who would have inadvertently done the Ash Cloud’s bidding ten years ago. If I know her well enough, she will return to finish the job.”

“She’d never do that!” Kio blurted out.

He regretted it right away. Raptor didn’t respond, just sat in silence, letting Kio figure out the implications of what he had just said.

Karla wasn’t coming back. She had no reason to. She’d found her people.

Their promise was broken.

“Tell me what will happen if the cloud touches the sphere.” He needed to know. Needed Raptor to tell him what his life would mean now.

“The Ash Cloud is only a few miles across at its widest,” Raptor explained. “But the Heartsphere’s power is great enough to magnify it ten-thousandfold. If the Ash Cloud enters it, its poison will emerge strong enough to cover the entire world.”

He stood, and Kio followed him to the window. Far below on the surface, the last crescent of sunlight was sinking away from the Big Island.

“The people there will not survive,” Raptor went on. “Not even the meanest shepherd, nor their greatest emperor. Nor Karla, nor any of us. Picture a world of death, all its life choked off in an endless night. A void where warmth used to be. A planet rendered comatose.” He put a hand on Kio’s shoulder. “We must build more to prevent it. We must arm.”

A million years ago, he’d pitched an argument with Karla about this very subject: fight the bone dragons or research the magical runes. He’d been adamant that turning Nashido into a fortress had been a waste of time. He had to laugh now at his wrongheadedness.

A fortress was all it had ever been. And a Rokhshan was all Kio ever would be.

Never to touch the surface. Bound to a grand destiny in the sky.

When he thought of it that way, all the fuss about their clockwork raven seemed foolish. No more fugues. No more vendettas against seagulls. No more missing Karla. He had his destiny now.

He turned to Raptor and said, “I’m with you.”

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Nick for signing up to support the serial! And thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Poison 4

It was entirely possible that the sheer scale of the dooms threatening Kio today kept him from transforming. The kind of distress he needed to obtain his cat form, he theorized later, required the knowledge of at least a scant hope for survival–otherwise all he felt was dissonant serenity. He tried to hold that sensation in his mind as he got back to work on the machine deck. The cat would not be useful here.

Not that it was any other time, but still.

All this freezing up was getting boring. If he was going to die, he wanted to spend the last moment thinking he was doing all he could. Maybe even deluding himself into believing he was about to win.

He’d felt this way before–when carving the runes into the back of Raven, and when deciding to tell Karla she had to go to the surface without him. Maybe this was how Karla felt all the time. He’d have to ask, in whatever world they next met in.

Hopefully there’s an island, he thought as he flipped levers to coax the last dregs of power out of the engine batteries. With a mountain, and a view over the ocean, where they could sit and talk like all this stuff that was now between them had never mattered at all.

Gods. That would be lovely.

He had a couple of tricks he could use to jolt power into the engines in the absence of lightning. The machine was so jury-rigged that he could actually spark the battery with a static charge just by flicking the mechanism hard enough–like a sparker starting a fire.

Above, the Benefactor had landed atop one of the port towers to rest. His watchful fire-eyes tracked the incoming flock of bone dragons.

Kio kept at work with the lever, but couldn’t stop watching. The engine rig didn’t require his eyes anyway.

One of the dragons detached from the flock and began to accelerate. Kio’s breath caught as he tried to discover what this one was doing differently. Its motions were controlled, wingbeats calculated to get the most out of each stroke. Much more like the Benefactor than the wild crowd of desperate, slavering beasts following in its wake.

Kio struck the levers harder, one in each hand. Was this some kind of chief of the dragons? Was he going to offer single combat to the Benefactor? That would be great.

The lead dragon was paces from Nashido’s towers when Kio at last felt a spark in the engines. Now he had to pray there was reserve power–enough to run the propellors, but not enough to start them.

A mobile battlestation, even one as lightly armed as Castle Nashido, would be really helpful right now.

The heavy propellors roused, going from sleep to roar in seconds. All his and Karla’s oiling had paid off. Now he just had to figure out where to go…

Pivoting from machines to meteorology, studiously avoiding the twelve murderous dragons in between, he scanned the clouds. Cumulus: useless as a grazing sheep. Cirrus: as mysterious as magic runes, and farther away. A sheet of nimbostratus was spreading out across the horizon–could have meant rain.

He had to hope. Water broke bone dragons apart, a dozen as easily as one.

The bone dragon winged toward the Benefactor, dipped below the tower tops…and vanished.

Kio couldn’t be bothered looking. The others were still closing in with no intention to divert. He had to consider the biggest problem.

And yet.

When he looked up again, the Benefactor was gone as well. He would have seen if the god had swung behind the castle, especially if he was in another fight. There was only one way two dragons could have disappeared that quickly.

Nashido shifted forward. The ropes and gears and vines on the walls groaned in complaint at being forced off their accustomed path, the loose drifting oval above the archipelago. But it was keeping the dragon horde a constant distance away.

Now that he thought, along strange winding paths he couldn’t see the use of–that dragon in the lead had carried himself with the same poise as another person he knew. At least, at first, before that man’s exhaustion had revealed itself. After all, he’d lain dead for years, and that was a rough thing to wake up from.

Footsteps on a staircase, and the Benefactor ran onto the machine deck, faster than his human form had yet moved. Behind him, no longer leaning on his staff, strode Medwick in Sunton.

“You!” Kio blurted out, losing focus on the throttles for a second. He hurriedly snapped his eyes back to the horizon as the castle began to list.

In the corner of his eye, the sky kingdom priest bowed his head. “I am sorry about the way we parted, Lord Rokhshan. I now understand that I was at fault. My concerns, however legitimate, should not have been aired in such a place and manner.”

“That’s, uh…” The nimbostratuses were breaking up in leads, like a melting ice shelf. Kio tried to urge the propellors past maximum capacity. They were supposed to rain!

And now he was expected to deal with Medwick too? He’d never missed being alone so much.

The two older men were a study in contrasts. Medwick was regal but still prematurely aged, his deep eyes paternal but his receding ringlets of black hair betraying weariness with the world. The Benefactor, Kio could see now by comparison, had always looked hungry. Every one of his muscles carried the coiled yearning to be more, to do more with every instant.

His dark eyes flashed with a bolt of sunlight as he turned to the priest. “What do you recommend?”

“You know what they want,” Medwick answered, “and that giving it up would be flatly impossible.”

“Beyond the negatives, then,” the Benefactor growled. “Kio here has given us access to an orbital bombardment platform using a number of kilowatts normally associated with static shock. Can you show similar initiative?”

Kio’s swell of warm pride mixed unexpectedly with a cold shock–what exactly was meant by orbital bombardment? He’d never encountered the phrase in any book.

Medwick took a long, deep breath, that seemed in tune with the tidelike inexorability of the pursuing dragons. “Perhaps we could give them a new purpose.”

The Benefactor’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”

“They are slaves,” Medwick explained. “Devoted to a single cause programmed into them from birth. You and I both know the feeling. We have spent enough time in their bodies to feel the urge. We could convince them to move toward something higher.”

“Are you suggesting we speak to them?”

“I am strongly advocating we try.”

The Benefactor sighed, and went to Kio, putting a hand on his shoulder. “How long can you keep us moving at his pace?”

Kio’s brow was sweating. “A few more minutes. Maybe three. and a half.”

“I believe you.” The Benefactor winked. “I built the propellors, after all. That’s all the time I need.”

He strode out to the edge of the machine deck, where Karla had nearly jumped under the influence of the warming gas. Kio glanced back once, and saw him silhouetted against rising clouds, the tails of his grey coat streaming behind him, as he glared at the ever-approaching constellation of skeletal dragons.

“Neogah!” he shouted. “I have a message for you.”

Neogah, Kio thought, as much as the thudding of propellors and wind allowed him to think. So they have names.

“You were once the messengers,” the Benefactor cried out in a voice that boomed over the ever-present howl of wind. “The ambassadors, linking the lowliest shepherd of the surface with the mightiest king of the sky. You believed, with full hearts, in the sacred power of this mission.”

The dragons in the lead surged closer, and Kio missed a few breaths, knowing he’d faltered and killed them all.

But the lead thing, the “neogah,” swooped over the heads of the three quasi-humans on the machine deck. It crested its arc near the looming walls of the citadel, then turned hard. Others followed.

“Yet you faltered. Lust grew in your souls. You conceived, as one–for one being is what you are–a desire for the Heartsphere, and for the power it could grant you.”

They were circling the Benefactor. Rapt by his speech, or hemming them in for the kill?

Medwick hefted his staff, as though it would help. Kio was sure of only one thing: he had several questions about the Heartsphere.

“It was your greed, your fear, which brought us to this present state!” The Benefactor’s voice filled the entire sky. He was no benevolent master now, but one of the old gods, great and terrible. “The poison in that wretched place rotted your hearts away! But I, Raptor, have come to give them back!”

Raptor?

Gods had many aspects. Many names.

“I give you a simple gift,” the deity roared. “Redemption! Join me now! Witness the sins you’ve forgotten written across the sky–let us scrub them clean together! If any part of your demonic carcasses remembers being Neogah…Join! With! Me!

All twelve of the dragons were circling now, holding constant orbits, like a diagram Kio had once seen of the theory of electrons. The Benefactor finished speaking, but they did not attack. The god had held them spellbound.

Wings beat. Kio and Medwick tensed.

The first dragon to settle landed on the basin rim, not far from where their earliest visitor had made his landfall. Two more landed atop the towers while one clung to oxygen vines and held fast. Another fluttered to hang upside-down, batlike, from the mist garden. Kio watched, mouth open, as the dragons revealed one by one that their carcasses had indeed retained something the Benefactor’s speech could speak to.

The final dragon came to rest on a large gear on the port side just as the batteries ran out of residual power. The castle was drifting.

Kio stood side-by-side with Medwick as the Benefactor approached–his weariness all gone, his frame now proud and erect.

“I have told my name to you, Kio,” he said, with some sardonic warmth, as though he regretted it but it was simply the sad way of the world. “Now, I hope you’ll use it. As a boy, before I grew into godhood…I was called Raptor.”

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Poison 3

He had so many questions.

What was the Ash Cloud? Why was it coming back?

Would it hit land and sky both?

Could they stop it?

By the time the Benefactor turned away from the poisoned horizon, even he was showing signs of fatigue. Kio was too beaten to keep his questions in mind. He began to fantasize: the second he was over safe ground, he’d roll limply out of the Benefactor’s claws and sprawl like an old rag wherever he landed.

He thought of Raven–was nearly able to see the ornithopter sideways out of one eye. All in all, strapping that thing to my back was a much more fun way to fly.

It was possible, given the strain on the bone dragon’s skeletal wings, that Kio could understand how he couldn’t reach the surface. The storm-tossed sea appeared as far below as it ever had, even though they had dived below Nashido.

He knew now. He knew how insurmountable that barrier had always been.

Except somehow Karla charmed her way through it, came an unwelcome thought intruding on his comfortably nihilistic certainty.

Also…what kind of god gets tired?

A sudden upward rush left him unable to think about those questions any longer. His brain flattened against the top of his skull as the Benefactor soared upward, puncturing the veil of clouds once more. Thinking only of his furs getting even more soaked–the pages in the pockets would be lost if he didn’t hang them to dry right away–Kio heard a muffled noise under the wind. Was the dragon-Benefactor speaking?

Nausea thudded in waves against his head, his chest, his gut. He could make out nothing more than a distorted echo of voice. He and Karla had tried making a communicator once with taut strings, but had abandoned it when it proved no more effective than shouting. This sounded similar…

“Might…others…”

“I’m sorry! I can’t hear!”

“Left castle alone…attract…lost ones!”

“Lost ones? Who’s lost?”

They broke through the fog into sunlight.

Kio winced from the sudden lance of bright sun. He hadn’t realized how tightly the clouds had closed over the ocean. Karla, down on the big island, would be getting rain.

Blinking his pupils back to the right size, limbs dangling uselessly from dragon claws, he took a second to figure out that the Benefactor was hovering again, the way he had when showing Kio the Ash Cloud.

“I was right,” said the god. “Kio, if I need to drop you, crumple. Do not try land on your feet.”

“What do you mean?”

“I will keep you safe. You first and then the world.”

At last the shape swimming before Kio’s eyes resolved. Castle Nashido was there, with a blob of weathered white moving in front of it.

A second bone dragon.

Kio’s first scan revealed a seam of cracks webbing all over its body, most pronounced at the joint of the limb that had carried him into the sky for the first time. This was the same dragon that had attacked them twice, that may have been present a third time the day Karla left.

It had the heartsphere. Now it was going to defend what it had won.

The Benefactor tightened, shifting midair into a fighting stance. Kio could tell he had done this a hundred times before. These Lost Ones must have been vast in number.

The enemy dragon had been clawing at the hole left behind when Karla and Kio had dropped the tower to push the castle upward to the sky kingdom. With a wordless roar, it had dropped itself into open air, then beat its wings to hover directly between Nashido and the Benefactor.

“Benefactor,” he shouted up to the god, “can you fight with me in your claws?”

“It will be difficult,” the Benefactor confessed. “Fortunately, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Why–”

The enemy dragon charged with a sore-throated cry. The Benefactor opened his claws.

Kio fell as the god leapt forward to meet his foe.

Tumbling in midair was different than being dragged through the sky in talons. For one thing, he couldn’t think at all. It was a small mercy.

Bone crashed against bone above him. Spinning head over heels, he briefly saw the enemy swipe at the Benefactor’s skull, the god catching it and launching a flurry of kicks with his legs.

He was going to die. The sky enfolded him, gently, ushering him sorrowfully to the sea.

Hey, Kio, said a voice in his head. Sorry it happened this way.

Being so near the end, he didn’t remember he wasn’t supposed to trust Karla anymore. You mean this, he thought, or all of it?

A lot more than this, that’s for sure.

A scrape of bone, a thud, a cry, the beating of wings.

The world started to go black–

–and light returned. His momentum reversed. He was being carried.

He hadn’t fallen as far as he’d thought. He’d been flailing level with the mist garden when the Benefactor caught him. The dragon’s teeth were set in a line, his wings straining, without the energy to explain to Kio what the hell had just happened. Kio didn’t bother to ask.

He was alive. Shouldn’t he have been more excited? Instead, he felt oddly sad, as though rescue had snatched him away from a happier world where Karla was still in his life.

Which world will we reunite in?

The lost dragon flew in close pursuit. The Benefactor hadn’t much time. Carefully, he threaded the needle, leveling his wingspan to slide between the pillars suspending the mist garden. He dropped Kio–not as much distance this time–and Kio followed his command, crumpling and rolling over in the grass.

He stood, lurching across the dewy grass. Nothing felt broken. The Benefactor wheeled to face his enemy again, gasping out, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right!”

It was. At least in that matter. Kio had figured out the ploy soon after the god had caught him again. They’d never have made it past the enemy dragon at the start of the battle: the Lost One could have countered any maneuver. The only option was the last thing the enemy would expect.

Jettison one option to focus on another. He couldn’t resent the Benefactor for that.

As though he could at all. It wasn’t even an option. Like being mad at Karla, until a few days ago.

On his feet, pedaling his arms to keep from falling again, he watched the battle in motion. The Lost dragon leapt up with a burst of its wings, then plunged back down, snapping its jaws the Benefactor’s throat. The Benefactor surged forward and whipped his tail upward. He hit the other dragon in the face, bowling it head over heels, and the two swept away from each other, circling around for another attack.

It was like a naval fight. Kio’d read about these. Move into position, jockey for the best spot, and if you do it well enough, you end the battle.

The Benefactor could get tired. Could he die?

No decent Rokhshan would wait around to find out. Kio raced to the steps, quickly forgetting how queasy he was. He’d pay for that later. Right now, he needed to fight.

The statuary hall’s window opened onto the bottom of the aerial battle–a tornado of slashing claws and bodies slamming against each other. The Benefactor used his foe as a ladder, scrambling up out of sight, tearing out bones as he went.

Kio ran higher. Up a flight of stairs, he bolted out onto the machine deck.

This left him unshielded from the fight above, seemingly paces away. And it wasn’t going well. The enemy dragon had the Benefactor’s foreclaws in his legs and was battering with tooth and talon at the god’s body.

Each blow felt like it was thudding against Kio’s own. He dashed along the machine deck, as though that would accomplish anything.

The Benefactor whirled around suddenly. The force of his jerk caught the enemy by surprise. The fires in its eyes blazed hot as it slammed into the castle wall with the sickening sound of a dozen human legs breaking at once.

That’s it! Kio thought. He knew what he had to do. The two were evenly matched, but the lost dragon might just take longer to anticipate an unexpected variable thrown into the system.

The control panel was just a few steps away. But was there any power left in the engines?

He would have prayed. But that seemed like a weird thing to do with the recipient of all his prayers flying around above him trying to bite a dragon in half.

Not half as weird, besides, as him being the one coming to the deity’s aid.

As the Benefactor advanced for the kill, the enemy swung around him, reversing the fight again. This time, the Benefactor was trapped against the castle wall, the lost dragon preparing to tear him apart. The scrape and clash of bones tore into Kio’s ears as he struggled with the levers.

One, two, three, please be the correct sequence–

The propellors whirred to life. Kio bellowed, rejoicing without words.

Around Nashido, clouds began to shift.

The lost dragon missed by inches with a swipe that would have taken off the Benefactor’s skull. Where before he’d been trapped against the Outer Citadel, he now had room to dive below his adversary, baiting him away.

Kio pulled back hard on the throttle, and the high towers shifted. What energy there was in the engine batteries was fading fast–he could practically feel them dying. He was going to have to get a bit creative.

The propellors creaked to a stop, reversed, and surged up going backwards. He glanced up. If the Benefactor could just get the enemy dragon a little closer…

Crunch.

The dragon that had lost its way struck the starboard tower–or the starboard tower struck it.

Kio thought, Wait until I tell Karla I used the entire castle as a blunt object! Then his heart fell as he remembered he was probably never going to get to tell her that.

The lost dragon spun in midair. The Benefactor pounced, knocking hard against its center of gravity. His opponent fell–

–and revealed something else. The Benefactor raised his fiery eyes, and swiveled to look at something behind Kio.

Kio followed his gaze.

Once again, he felt that unnerving acceptance of impending death.

Birds were flying in the sky. Several of them, a whole flock, bore down on Nashido. Kio lost count as they kept moving, drawing ever closer. Gulls didn’t explain his sense of doom. Had something in his body realized the truth before his mind?

Just then, his brain caught up.

It was not seagulls flying toward him. It was a dozen bone dragons, their eyes blazing every color of the rainbow, their jaws sharp like sawblades.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Poison 2

Kio’s time-honed reflexes carried him on. By the time he was conscious of himself again, he was already sheltering in the starboard-side tower, halfway to rolling the stone door shut.

Voices fought within him, paralzying him before he could finish the job. In the crescent of blustery grey air he left, the Benefactor flexed and tested his wings.

Not the Benefactor! bellowed one voice. The thing squatting in his place! The demon that swallowed him!

Another spoke more coolly. You know how transformation works, Kio. You’ve seen it happen before. By what right do you call this an abomination?

The bone dragon swept its head toward Kio. The blazing eyes pierced his own, holding him in place like a spell. He could fight his muscles as much as he liked–they would not move.

This is a god, the calm voice intoned. You’re not here to ask him questions. What he does is right.

Images ran behind Kio’s eyes: carvings, mosaics, statues. The kindly figure in grey teaching the Rokhshan to plant oxygen vines, to cultivate mist gardens, to speak the languages of the sky kingdoms.

This had been left out. Omitted from the records, as the bone dragons so often were.

For the first time, Kio wondered if that had not happened at the request of the creatures themselves. Looking into the Benefactor-dragon’s fiery eyes, he could begin to imagine warmth behind them.

Maybe not warmth. He shivered. But intelligence. Intent, rationality. That alone was better than what he and Karla had seen in the ones that had attacked already.

He rolled the door just open enough to pass through.

The dragon turned its head away as he stepped out–one tentative pace at first, then two. Each resounded bullet-like across the surface of the basin.

Not knowing why, he stretched out his hand. Was the god, in the form of a demon, actually showing him deference?

In a rush of wind, the Benefactor beat his wings, leaping so quickly into the air that Kio missed half of it in a blink. One second he had been all stillness and silence, the next soaring up the aqueduct, his twisted limbs everywhere at once. One thing was for sure: whatever a normal bone dragon was, this new form of the Benefactor’s wasn’t it.

Kio stared up into the sky again, blinking when he had to, transfixed by the god on the machine.

The problem clearly hadn’t been as bad as it had looked from all those stories below. The Benefactor lifted one beam with his legs and held it while carefully realigning two of the cloud-catchers. One of those, in turn, had been pressing on one of the pipes, which fell quickly into place when the obstruction was removed. The Benefactor swooped over to it, confirmed it was in order, then sprang up to circle the entire mechanism, inspecting every inch.

Should I do something? thought Kio. He truly was off the edge of the social-protocols map here.

He ended up frozen, watching, a silhouette against the Rokhshan mosaic tales. He remained that way when the dragon passed behind the port-side towards, beat its wings twice over the basin rim, and landed in front of him.

“I am sorry I was not honest,” the Benefactor-dragon said, in a voice rolled over with the grinding and shifting of bones.

A funny thing happened when Kio heard the dragon speak. It was as though he’d reached some kind of surprise threshold, where things that would usually shock him didn’t manage, simply because he had no energy left to react.

“I…I understand,” he replied. “I wouldn’t have, at first. You made the right decision.”

The Benefactor nodded–a bit sadly, Kio thought–and began to trace the black outlines of the mosaic figures with one claw. “I guided Great Rokhshan in this form,” he murmured, talking as much to himself as to Kio. “It’s funny, but none of the storytellers after his time thought to question how I stayed aloft. As the sky kingdoms grew in power, they all simply assumed I wore one of their gliding suits. Or that deities can all hover.”

Kio inched closer. “When…did you…”

“Enter the Heartsphere?” The dragon’s eye-fires flared. “Many years ago. Many years before your house. In doing so, I took on a burden I would ask of nobody else. I am glad it was given to me.”

“What burden?” Kio asked.

The dragon’s outline wavered. Its wings retracted, its legs curled up beneath it. In a few moments, without so much as a change in expression, the middle-aged man in the grey wool suit stood before him again.

“Come. I ought to show you something.”

While Kio followed the Benefactor down through the Outer Citadel, turning over what this thing could be, the god remained enthralled by the etchings, paintings, and statues they passed. “I have returned a few times in my other form, over the centuries,” he explained as they crossed an outer-tower footbridge, “though this is the first time in a thousand years I have landed in that body. Usually, when I wear that form, I am far away in the skies, defending the castle from the demons.”

Kio nearly misplaced a foot and tumbled to the roof of the workshop. The Benefactor neatly caught his arm. “The other bone dragons? Are they like you?”

The god thought for a moment. “No,” he said at last, “mostly. They have but the one body, and no mind worth the term. They are animals, fixated on a single objective.”

“What objective?”

“Just a moment more, Lord Rokhshan. I promised I would explain.”

If nothing else, the Benefactor’s intimate knowledge of Castle Nashido’s paths and ways would prove true his story about having shepherded its construction for the last thousand years. He even knew his way around the improvements Karla and Kio had added themselves. Knowing the god had been watching over them from a distance, fighting back bone dragons until their depraved attacks became so frequent even his power couldn’t handle them all, gave Kio a feeling he had to work to understand: a swirling, churning kind of happiness.

They arrived at the hangar. The Benefactor stepped gingerly, reverentially, over the great calendar in the floor.

He paused to examine the husk of Raven. “This is your flying machine?”

Kio nodded. He didn’t want to think about Raven just now. It was too saturated with Karla.

“Curious,” the Benefactor said. “It almost looks like one of them.”

In that broken-down form, it did resemble a bone dragon. Kio was more than ready to move on.

The Benefactor turned at the edge of the hangar. A grey-white cloudscape framed him, a sky deeper than the sea. “Kio, I will need to take you with me.”

There was little question what that meant.

Scuffing the calendar with the toes of his boots, Kio felt the acute sense of a crossroads. To fly with the Benefactor would mean leaving Raven behind–giving up the future he had agreed to in his promise with Karla. He’d be casting off their life together like an old set of furs.

On the flying machine’s spine, he caught sight of the runes he had carved on it to rescue her from the middle of the thunderstorm. His fists clenched. He had saved her that day not knowing about her lie. How many years into their friendship would she still have let him drop if she’d been in his place, would her mother’s order have taken precedence in her mind? One, two? Five?

No. She couldn’t give him any future anymore. She was down on the surface, with her people–let her stay. He’d find his own way.

Kio said to the Benefactor, “I’ll go with you.”

The god shifted. His limbs became bones again, growing in a way Kio was already getting used to. Before the god’s face turned, he asked, “Are you taking me to the surface?”

The Benefactor stared, and kept staring, as his face became skeletal and his eyes became fire. At last, when a full dragon was clinging to the side of Nashido’s hangar, he answered, “No.”

“Wait!” Kio shouted. “What?”

A draconic claw grabbed him, and dragged him over the edge, as creature and human whipped up into the sky.

The clouds rushed around him. The sky was vast, and ever-deepening–he had never wrapped his head around its true enormity. Nobody knew what was above, and it dwarfed what was below. Air currents the size of cities flew up and down moisture columns as tall as mountains. It swallowed the sky kingdoms, swallowed continents. A massive trench in the clouds opened up, closed over them as they flew, drenching Kio’s furs but giving him a blessed moment of relief from the sky. Then it opened again and he was rising through endless rays of sun, over an eternity of clouds, a tiny insectoid mind reckoning with the infinite.

Gripping the Benefactor’s claw with all his might, listening to the beat of the skeletal wings, he turned up all the contents of his stomach at once. How did you cope with unending depth? How ignorant of all this had he been for ten years? Had the Rokhshan gifted him with enough arrogance that he thought he could ever matter in the face of the all-consuming mind-destroying size of the sky?

They had passed swiftly under the castle before continuing to rise. Realizing it was gone from sight shot him into another bout of nausea, his head spinning hard under forces pressing him from all sides. The canyons of cloud became islands, then vanished as the Benefactor’s wings kept beating, leaving them with nothing but a white floor and endless blue and sun.

Kio looked up–anywhere but down, anywhere–and swore he could see day stars.

Suddenly, the forces pressing on him reversed. The bone dragon was diving. He began to think again, disjointed words at first, then a complete thought: this was slightly better than his last dragon kidnapping. At least the Benefactor would take him back to Nashido.

Probably.

Why not the surface? he tried to scream. Why can’t you take me to the surface?

His throat felt hollow and blocked at the same time. Like he’d never been able to speak, and just dreamed that he could. The Benefactor had his wings folded to plunge back into the layer of cloud. Soon they struck one again, and the cold wet air whistled past Kio’s ears, just fast enough to make him forget to wonder if the bone dragon was capable of stopping.

They broke through the clouds. The Benefactor threw his wings open and dragged himself to a stop. As he beat his wings to stay in place, Kio slowly came back to himself. Patiently, the god waited for him to look around.

The Benefactor spoke for the first time, in his gravelly dragon-voice. “This is what you must see.”

“I–” Kio gagged on his words. “What is?”

“Look,” commanded his god.

They were hovering over a wine-dark ocean, with steel-grey clouds all around. The waves crashed in whitecaps as wind beat against Kio’s face. He searched the horizon, but could find no trace of land, nor of any ships.

Then he looked south. And jumped, so hard the Benefactor had to lash out with another claw to stabilize him.

The entire southern horizon was covered in a rolling purple cloud. Points of light sparkled within it, glinting at him like sinister stars.

“Ash Cloud,” he whispered, and though the wind roared, the Benefactor heard him and nodded.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Poison 1

Kio allowed himself to shut his eyes for a count of thirty. No longer. Although the bright light on the clouds was burning his retinas, he had to figure out what was wrong with the aqueduct. If he looked away too long he risked forgetting critical information.

He thought they’d had it fixed after the first bone dragon attack. But their work had been hasty–easy enough to understand, with how thirsty they were. Something left up there had shifted about.

If anybody had been around to ask, he’d have said he wasn’t sure why he was doing chores himself the morning after he’d learned he had a god hanging around as a houseguest. But the Benefactor was off catching breakfast, and Kio felt he’d lose his mind if he didn’t contribute something.

The capturing food was the strangest part. Every favor the Benefactor had done him had begun with the god leaping off the side of the castle and falling out of sight. So he could fly, somehow, and didn’t want Kio to see. Maybe it just made him smell bad.

He refocused his eyes on the drip, which was pinging off the edge of the basin. If he couldn’t come up with a way to make a repair on this bloody thing stick…

I could ask him.

A shudder coursed over his whole body. Until now, he hadn’t even considered such a thought. Everything the Benefactor had done for him so far had been of the god’s own volition. To request favors from him, as though his family’s patron was some sort of genie he’d just let out of a magic ring?

Unthinkable. Besides, this was supposed to be Kio’s contribution.

But then a new thought stole over him–a product of sleeplessness, of stress, of the reeling he was still doing over Karla’s lies. No doubt a sacriligous thought he never would have had otherwise. He would allow it this once, but no more.

Kio sat down against one of the tower doors, shivering in the wind. Just a quick rest before he kept thinking…

…and the thought came again.

He raced across the basin to the nearest set of stairs and bolted down into the Outer Citadel. If he could just get warm, out of the wind, he could quit having this same ridiculous idea over and over. It was wrong to think this. It was wrong to think about thinking this.

“Kio,” came the rich voice from above.

He whipped around on his heel. The Benefactor strode down the stairs, clutching a dead seagull in each hand. The birds hardly hard a drop of blood marring the smooth grey of their feathers.

“Kio, is something wrong?” asked the god.

Although…I’m just going to keep thinking about this. About a year ago, Karla had read over his shoulder and immediately told him they were both going to start meditating: sitting in silent peace and letting their thoughts come and go.

Neither of them had lasted long. But perhaps this idea was one he had to let run its course.

Stop it! He slapped himself in the face hard enough to sting. Shook his head until he was dizzy.

The Benefactor stepped closer, concern crinkling his eyes. He set the two seagulls aside.

Ever since Karla left, something had felt unbalanced within Kio. He needed to get his head on straight. Needed to get back to normal.

The voice infecting his brain whispered, How do you plan to do that without Karla?

The Benefactor placed one hand on Kio’s shoulder. Again, as it felt like he’d done a thousand times already this morning, he marvelled at how good the deity was at everything. He knew exactly what to do to comfort Kio: stabilize. Give him time to let his world resolve.

“Lord Rokhshan,” the Benefactor said, with a half-smile as though the title were now their private joke. “I can’t help you unless you trust me.”

The solution made itself obvious. Kio must have been an idiot not to have seen it before.

The way he’d be normal again without Karla was by letting the Benefactor know everything. Even the thoughts he shouldn’t have been thinking.

“I had an idea…” he stammered.

The Benefactor nodded a go on and Kio’s throat locked up. Now that he’d started, he had to rush to the other side.

“I had an idea that if I asked you for help with the aqueduct, I’d get to see what you do when you jump off the castle. But it wasn’t fair, of course it wasn’t, because I know what you’re doing is–”

“Of course.” The Benefactor stopped him with a squeeze of his shoulder. The corridor warmed a few degrees. “I should have understood.”

“Understood…what?” Kio trod cautiously.

“Why you were still afraid of me. Still holding back.” The Benefactor rubbed his forehead. “I have not been honest with you.”

Kio couldn’t say anything. The god turned toward the stairs, beckoned him to follow. He did.

“It’s entirely my fault,” explained the Benefactor once they returned to the reservoir basin, raising his voice as the wind picked up. “I judged you incorrectly. I didn’t give you the credit you deserve. I have been watching you, as I said, and that alone ought to have been more than enough evidence that there is no truth too much for you to handle.”

Don’t be so sure, Kio thought, before the fear of what this new “truth” might be chased all words from his mind.

Out on the basin rim, the three towers suddenly seemed like much less shelter than they had before. The Benefactor backed up, two or three graceful steps. His demeanor had shifted: no longer a wise father, he had become an athlete, face set to strive for a goal.

“One more thing, Lord, before I make your repairs,” he said.

“Anything.” Kio nodded. Anything to get this over with. I never should have brought it up. Why am I so easy to read?

“Do you truly mean that we can have no secrets? Do you mean that we will always be able to talk, as equals, no matter what transpires?”

“Equals may be..a stretch.”

“But your answer is–”

“Yes,” he said emphatically. “My answer is yes.”

“Good.” The Benefactor smiled, less like a proud father this time and more like an excited competitor. More like Karla. “Then I will show you, Kio, that we truly are equals.”

His face changed again. For a moment, Kio couldn’t read it.

Then he realized: it was striving. Somewhere within him, the Benefactor was reaching for something.

What did a god have to search for like that? What could be so hard to find?

He remembered the last internal quest he’d gone on–the inadvertent adventure he’d been hurled into when he thought Karla was dead. He’d transformed so easily, without even trying. And after so much time searching for the right emotions to change himself into…

Searching for…

…a transformation.

“Wait!” he yelled from outside himself. It was too late.

The Benefactor had already begun to change.

He’d observed the process once before with Karla. She had changed in a single fluid motion–folding into herself, growing feathers, shifting limbs into wings. It had been strangely beautiful to watch, and inevitable, like falling from sky to earth.

The Benefactor’s shift was not inevitable. He seemed to be suffering, fighting, with every step. He grunted when wings burst from his arms, let out a scream of pain–which he tried to mask with a grin–when a dozen twisted legs replaced his human form. A massive chunk of bone subsumed his torso, joining the wings and legs, leaving skeletal arms beneath them.

His smile was the last thing to warp. It hardly shifted as the face around it changed: from human skin and hair to a solid carapace. The set of teeth grew, but kept their grinning shape, sitting below a pair of blazing eyes like orange flames.

Karla became a Raven. Kio became a cat. When the Benefactor’s emotions loosed, he became a bone dragon.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Freetown 5

She told all of it.

Telling was a funny feeling. She’d never had anyone to tell things to before, except for her diary. Kio always knew everything she knew–landling secrets notwithstanding. He didn’t just have her whole story by heart, he was her story. And she was his.

To have a story to tell this way, though: it made her more real. That was the strangest part. As she told Jenny, Griffin, and Rose about Raven and the bone dragons, about the sky kingdoms and the Inner Citadel, about learning she could transform into a bird–Jenny stopped her for a quarter of an hour after that one–it was as though she was creating a source for herself, a light that would shine onto the surface world.

It was as though she hadn’t been real, here on this island, before she told this story.

At last she got to the final scene. She flew away from Nashido’s hangar as a raven, and got attacked midair by a bone dragon. Then Jenny diverted the course of her flyer to snatch her out of the sky.

“What about Kio?” Jenny asked. The younger girl was rocking back and forth on her haunches.

Karla armored herself. The question would pierce right through her if she let it.

“I’m gonna save him,” she said.

“No, you’re not.”

Jenny!” Griffin and Rose shouted in unison. The gut-punch had hardly registered when–

“Not alone, I meant!” Jenny shouted. “Not without help. She can’t build a plane in Rust Town, alone, while pretending to everybody that she’s never met Mara. She needs us.”

“Us?” Rose shook her head. “I’m not an engineer.”

“A doctor is useful anywhere,” Jenny urged. “All kinds of doctors.”

Griffin stood up. “I’ve lived in this town for sixteen years. I sent my aeronautics thesis back to the academy, I watched my brother and his wife fly away, I’ve worked and worked on other people’s broken pots and misaligned wings and I’ve tried to get to that sphere. The situation is not going to change just because we’re looking for a boy instead of treasure. Karla’s problem is the same problem facing every Ruster.”

“The situation has changed.” Jenny scowled. “Karla knows things. If we can combine her knowledge with ours we’ll have an advantage over everybody else.”

“Karla needs a realistic sense of her chances! You’re doing her no favors pretending we can warp her into the sky tomorrow.”

“But she can turn into a bird! Why not just have her fly the second half of the way?”

“Because ravens are not meant to live or fly at that altitude! She’ll never make it!”

Humans aren’t meant to live at that altitude!”

Head swiveling back and forth as niece and uncle argued, Karla finally caught Rose’s eye. The healer shrugged, probably knowing from long experience how hard it would be to stop them.

But Karla had an idea. She slid along the bed to get closer.

“The woman downstairs, keeping everyone distracted,” she whispered to Rose. “What was her name?”

“Oh. Grace McConnell?”

“Yeah, her. Do you think she could get me a quill and some paper?”

Grace sent Calvin up with the supplies. Her son looked neither gangly nor boozy as he cleared away their mugs on the tray he brought the paper with–just weary. Karla prayed he’d get to go to sleep soon. Her own eyelids felt heavy.

She set pen to paper, as Rose watched, and as Griffin and Jenny sparred over a new version of their skycraft.

“Before it sank, I was thinking the pilot bar sat too far back. That’s exactly the kind of thing Karla could confirm for us.”

“She’s not a talking book, Jenny! Our priority is keeping her safe!”

The quill was scratchy and the ink didn’t blot right, but Karla managed. After a few runny, failed attempts, she got into the rhythm on a clean corner of the paper.

“What about all the people who think you’re crazy for not building off Mara’s design? Don’t you want to prove them wrong?”

“That is none of your business!”

It took shape: the curves, the dots, the dashes sliding over each other to make a figure like a gossamer wing.

Knowing when she’d finished wasn’t a problem. One final set of dots, in the southwest corner, and the paper took flight. Halfway through a retort, Jenny dove out of the way of what looked in peripheral vision like an enormous bug. Griffin reached out to grab the paper, but it sprang up out of the way, darting toward the ceiling. There, flat against a wooden rafter, it came to rest.

“Karla,” Rose breathed, “What…what even…”

“It’s Kio,” she said, heart thudding. “He had that symbol tattooed on his face.”

***

Gone midnight. Near dawn. Nobody felt like sleeping.

The four of them cleared out of the inn, past tables full of snoring patrons, with a wink from Grace who was pretending to be passed out on the bar. They spilled into a dawn that would shatter at the slightest touch, a misty fall of light that was barely holding onto the world.

Nobody felt tired. Jenny hammered Karla with questions, which the sky-girl answered willingly, a new fire lighting her from within. Rose led the way in silent commitment to keep all the fools in her life safe.

Griffin, in the middle, must have been the only one not at peace with his thoughts. He kept glancing up at the mountains, up to the high crest where he’d taken her that first day, to smell the heather and watch the birds fly over the horizon.

Back when there had been some notion that he and Kevin would compete for her.

Unbidden, the memory of Rachel turned into another.

 

The ash cloud pushed air before it as it rolled on. High winds hurtled away from the purple mass, driving high waves ahead of them. In the middle of it all, Griffin kept one white-knuckled hand on the tiller, his other arm tightly around the little girl wrapped in his oilskin coat.

There was nothing on his mind. All the imperatives that should have been there–protect Jenny, get away from the poison–were edged out by a tiredness that emanated from his bones. He’d been awake for twenty-six hours. Eighteen hours ago, Mara had tested the air and shouted that it was time. Kevin and Rachel had rushed to the planes. Griffin had raced to the boats.

He couldn’t see the others anymore. Those who hadn’t run early had launched together from the ragged docks at the base of the island: fishing boats mostly. He’d taken Jenny into Old Cooper’s dinghy, after they both saw Cooper collapse on the slope and tumble down three stories of rock, clawing at his throat.

The others launching beside him had been skeptics, or had believed there would be more time to prepare. They’d all been wrong. Only Griffin had been right. It gave him no comfort.

There had been a larger, stronger barge leaving at the same time, which he could have taken passage on. He had pushed Rose toward it instead. She in turn had tried to take Jenny, but the girl had clung to Griff, and they didn’t have time to fight the issue out.

The healer was always all right. She would have to be all right.

Chill spray lashed his back. His thin coat was never warm, just damp. In a brief lull he tore it off and wrapped it over the other he’d already given Jenny. The tiny girl was huddled in the bottom of the dinghy, murky water lapping at her. Her lips had turned blue.

Minute after minute, Griff strained to hold the tiller in place. One turn, one buck too far by the storm-tossed craft, would hurl them back into the jaws of the ash cloud.

I can’t believe Mara was right about everything, he thought.

I can’t believe they’re all gone.

The dinghy rushed up a wave, its pathetic little mainsail flapping in defiance. Griffin lashed out from the tiller and took hold of Jenny again, keeping her in place while the fishing boat rushed down into a canyon made of water. She wasn’t even crying.

Griffin thought he might. His arms were ready to tear off. And each time he looked up, every backward glance he spared the Ash Cloud, the purple gas had billowed higher into the air, farther out to sea.

It was rushing toward the sphere. As it got closer, the light changed. Suddenly, the vast wall was shining a pale green.

Griffin couldn’t hold its enormity in his mind. It was taller than the mountains, taller than the sky. It had no limit in either direction.

Was this the end of the world?

Had he really thought to outrun it?

Another blink, and the sphere was engulfed. Griffin howled, hit another wave, and the tiller snapped off in his hand.

He dove for Jenny–the sail whipped around, boom flying with it, and caught him on the head–

 

Rose took them on a shortcut through an alley that the rising sun was just beginning to warm. Karla and Jenny kept chattering excitedly behind him. Griffin looked over his shoulder, briefly, and felt a surge of love for his niece so intense his knees nearly buckled.

He’d awoken in the dinghy, curled around her, on a morning a lot like this one. The breeze had blown softly. The sea was calm. Far off, from the high roosts on the sheer side of the island, he could hear seagulls.

He had cried out. Wordless. Hit the sides of the boat until his knuckles went raw. Sniffed, bawled, until Jenny began sobbing too, and they held each other and wept for Kevin and Rachel and Rust Town.

Am I a coward for not telling this part of the story? Dr. Edward Griffin thought ten years later. Does it make me a coward that I still haven’t let her go?

There were, indeed, questions that even a scientist would prefer the universe not answer.

He followed the little group back to his workshop, where they could begin to set right the sins of the past.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Freetown 4

Over the next hour, as the lamps of Rust Town extinguished to reveal the stars, Karla learned that she had not erred in swearing by her mother’s name. Mara had spent five years in the village she’d called Freetown, demonstrating the energy of a minor deity for every day of them. Pacing, gesticulating, draining mugs–a task Karla helped with–Rose and Griffin explained the way Mara had brought the gospel of apocalypse to the people of the surface.

By the end of her first year, there were a group of people following in her wake, named after the gift Karla’s father–whom nobody ever named, because Mara herself had never named him–had given his love before she escaped slavery. The Harpooneers soon outgrew both the City Council and the bay-borne slavers, and cowed them both into the shadows for a blessed while. Treasure hunters supported them: anything to bring back a share of the sphere’s wealth.

Kevin Griffin, brother of Edward and husband of Rachel, became their most zealous booster, closely joined by Almon Carpenter, a famous sniffer-out of mushrooms. Their efforts that first year focused on trying to recreate Rokhshan-style flight using the lift runes Mara remembered from the castle.

But it was no use. Mara’s memory had holes torn in it by starvation and the lash. The runes had flaws just big enough to make them useless. In workshop after workshop, one hushed basement meeting after another, they sparked with brief light–and then fell dark again to groans and recriminations.

Later on, when the Ash Cloud didn’t arrive immediately, they diversified. Alongside their planes they began working on plans to save the townsfolk in case they didn’t find the right skycraft in time. They became a peacekeeping force, almost an actual city council, and started using the old town name. Some people dropped out when the end didn’t come, but others redoubled their devotion–after all, Mara had never set a date for the island’s doom.

Karla took all this information in with an off-kilter detachment, as though she had just discovered her favorite book had several chapters she’d always neglected to read. It was hard to imagine having come from this. Her mother had been a warrior, wasting no time in racing back toward the sky to save the people she’d left behind. Though it had taken five years, she had never wavered from her mission.

Karla, on the other hand…Karla was already giving up. It was easy, almost. Comforting to imagine there was no way to save Kio, that she had no work left but suffering through grief.

She pinched herself hard, startling the room for a moment. “I just…spaced out for a sec,” she told the three concerned faces. “Sorry. Keep going.”

“I was just saying, I saw the way your mother raised you,” Griffin told her. “She would make you toys out of bits of wood. Started her own garden, right by Rachel’s, to make sure you’d have mashed vegetables to eat. Never let go of you.”

“Even after you learned to walk,” Rose laughed.

With the joke came a new memory: strong arms holding her protectively, watching a clockwork craft wheel and cavort over the bay. She could sense the tension of the woman holding her, could feel her awe and relief when the pilot pulled out of a deep dive.

“I remember!” she spat out suddenly.

Griffin and Jenny were in the middle of an argument abuot one of the Harpooneer aircraft designs. Once again, everyone broke off mid-sentence.

Karla felt absolutely certain. The memory had come the normal way, no evil gas required. Her new Rust Town friends had unearthed something within her.

“I want to tell the way the story ends,” she said with determination. “I was there. I can do it.”

“When are you talking about?” Jenny asked.

“The day of the Ash Cloud. The day the Harponeers launched.” She gulped. “I call it Year Zero. But before, I only knew what happened in the sky.”

 

They gathered in the crystal square, bathed in faint blue glow that meant the castle was far-off but approaching. A dozen or so Harpooneers kept order with swords, while the rest readied the fleet. Rusters of all sorts milled around the edges, waiting for their places or snorting in disbelief.

But not many. Those who didn’t believe in the craft had run for the boats by now.

The craft were strange-looking: a new design, her mother said, never tested before, with some attempted runes to help them out. They weren’t what she’d wanted. But her people were out of time.

The Rokhshan would surely not shelter their landling slaves inside the Heartsphere. They probably wouldn’t enter themselves, due to the order from their Benefactor. That meant the only choice was to fight.

Mara kept one arm around Karla while examining one of the planes in the other. She kept glancing worriedly toward the southern horizon.

Karla herself wasn’t really paying attention to the big purple cloud, even though it was pretty in the sunset. She was watching Dr. Griffin fight with his brother Kevin.

Kevin was pulling on his gloves as they argued. “Griff, listen–”

“Don’t call me that!” Dr. Griffin yelled. “You don’t get to use nicknames and pretend we’re still brothers. Not with what you’re doing here.”

“Which part? Protecting the town? Or sending my infant daughter to safety?”

Griffin’s hands clenched into claws in front of his face. The blue light made him look like an angry monster. “I knew you’d lost your mind to Mara. I just never knew it was this far gone.”

“Evidence, little brother,” Kevin snapped. “I brought you up better.”

Dr. Griffin snarled. “Fine. You’re flying, because you think attacking the flying castle is the only way we can be safe. But you’re sending me on the boats, with Jenny, because you’re concerned for our safety? Which is it, Kevin?”

“It should be obvious. Our plan is to bring the sphere down to the surface.” Kevin buckled a pilot’s helmet beneath his chin. “But if we fail, I’ll be drowned if I leave my family without protections. Even if they are obstinate fools.”

“Fools like your two-year-old child?” Griff pointed in her direction. “Mara is bringing her daughter.”

“Karla can walk unassisted. Jenny is a baby in arms. Whose arms, by the way?” Kevin mounted one leg up to his cockpit bar. “I told you to take care of her.”

“Rose has Jenny. They should already be to the boats. But if you believe any of us remaining down here have a chance to survive, you have yet to explain why you’re flying.”

“For what I believe in, Griff!” Propellors were winding up around the square, ready to detach at altitude to turn craft into gliders. The sound filled Karla’s ears, nearly drowning out the argument though she strained to hear. “For the people trapped up there who can’t save themselves! For the future of this miserable rock, where my wife sleeps, where my daughter will grow up!”

“Your wife!” Griffin spat. “If you cared about her you’d let her stay down here! With–”

“With you?” Rachel asked. Karla jumped in Mara’s arms. She hadn’t seen Kevin’s wife hiding around the other side of the plane.

All the fight vanished from Dr. Griffin. It was like the man deflated. At once Karla could tell all he was thinking about was fleeing.

“With us,” he said lamely.

 

“Could you skip ahead?” Griff asked her.

Karla plunged back into the present day to notice he was holding his head in his hands while Jenny rubbed his upper back. Rose had vanished downstairs again, probably to consult with Grace, though the timing was a bit convenient.

And she remembered: he had brought up Rachel many times in his earlier stories, even while discussing other people, places she wouldn’t have been relevant. He was as good as screaming that this woman was still taking up space in his head.

To lose her to a brother…Karla had no idea what that would feel like.

“All right,” she said. “I’ll jump ahead. There was the Ash Cloud, and the castle coming from the north, and then the launch.”

 

The propellors reached a screaming pitch. The crystal glowed as bright as a star. Ahead, at the edge of the square, those closest to the seacliff launched in waves.

One row. Then the next. Like a tide that would carry Karla out to sea. Strapped into the cockpit, folded in her mother’s arms, Karla felt like she was buried in sand.

She craned her neck around, but couldn’t see far enough to find out where Dr. Griffin had gone. She badly wanted Jenny to be all right.

Another row of planes launched. Two left now.

What would it be like to leave the surface behind? Karla tried to memorize the feeling of grass under her feet, the shape of the mountains. She gazed up at the moon, and decided she’d better memorize that too: after all, on the castle they’d be much closer, and it would probably look pretty different.

Another wave launched. One left now.

“Are you ready, Karla?”

Her mom’s voice didn’t sound like it usually did. The ferocity was missing. Suddenly she wondered if Mara would rather Karla wasn’t going.

“I guess so.”

“Are you all right?”

More propellors spat to life. Karla shut her eyes tight, trying to trap the surface world behind her eyelids.

She asked, “Didn’t they hurt you up there?”

“Yes, they did.” Mara’s hand went to the long sword resting against her thigh. “But they won’t hurt anybody anymore. We’re too strong for them now.” She squeezed Karla tightly. “You’re too strong. I’d like to see them touch you. My little warrior.”

Karla didn’t feel like a warrior. She felt like she’d never see grass again.

The last row of planes leapt into the air. The propellor sped up. Mara was saying something, but Karla couldn’t hear.

 Her mother ran, then, when invisible hands pushed them upward, jumped.

The island dropped away like a stone into a well.

Karla had flown a handful of times before–Mara had insisted on taking her around the island in laps so she could “acclimate”–so she knew for certain: planes weren’t meant to rise this fast. Some of the first to launch were already specks against the darkening sky. The first lift frames had been released, plummeting to the ocean as their former skycraft turned into gliders.

She frantically searched the sliver of land and water she could see. No boats. No Jenny or Griffin.

In fact, to the east of Freetown Island, she could see nothing…except the roiling purple ash cloud, crawling through sky and sea toward everything she loved.

 

In the silence after Karla finished, Rose produced a match and lit a lantern on the wall, giving them all some long-overdue light.

“Why mention how quickly you rose?” Dr. Griffin asked thoughtfully. Karla studied his face as though for the first time, now that she remembered a bit of his younger life. She tried to figure out how only ten years could have turned a man in his thirties into such a greybeard.

“It’s just something I remembered.” Though in fact Karla was thinking furiously. If she could figure out the source of that surge in lifting force, she might have a path back to Nashido after all…in a working skycraft.

“And?” Jenny asked determinedly. “What happened next?”

Karla shrank a little. “That’s it,” she said. “I don’t remember anything else. Until…”

Three faces watched her, and she realized that there was only one way to go from here. She would have to tell the story of Year Zero, the one she had remembered in the Inner Citadel.

Then she realized something else: she could tell that story. It terrified her even now. But these people could give her the strength to be brave.

“My mother told me to crumple when we landed on the top of the tower,” she began. “Not to try and land on my feet…”

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.